Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
May the light of Christ shine on every moment of doubt, the creativity of God break open the boundaries of our possibilities, and the Holy Spirit spread wings of peace over us.
It has been said that imitation is the best form of flattery. In that spirit, let me tell you that I came upon a sermon on today’s Gospel text upon which I could do little to improve. It was preached by one of my favorites, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor. Here is how she begins:
“At me house there is a gardener and there is a worrier. The gardener is a pretty easy- going fellow. Every May or June he comes through the door with a brown paper sack full of seed packets and a couple of evenings later he can be found puttering around the yard, emptying the packages into shallow furrows, heaping the dirt into little mounds and curling pieces of fence around them.
“Several weeks later, plants appear in the strangest places. He has been known to plant green peppers between the azalea bushes and broccoli by the mailbox. For the second year in row a stand of asparagus is pushing up through the roots of the crepe myrtle trees and sweet pea vines are winding through the branches of the weeping cherry. In a few weeks, string beans will overtake the back deck of the house, covering everything in sight.
All of this drives the worrier crazy. She knows how gardens are supposed to be and this is not it. You are supposed to begin by buying a book, for one thing, with illustrations on how to arrange plants according to size, height, and drainage requirements. First you must test the soil; then you must fertilize, mulch, weed, and water; above all you must worry, or else how will your garden grow?
To her eternal dismay and amazement, there comes a day every summer when the gardener proclaims that the vegetables are ready. He goes out to collect them from all over the burgeoning yard and a little while later the worrier sits down to a table heaped with manna. Against her will and better judgment she has to admit that he has done all right, in spite of his refusal to worry. This year there are even two dill plants that appeared out of nowhere, gifts from the earth itself.”
Barbara’s delightful and witty allegory is an expansion of the text we read in the Gospel of Mark. Isn’t that what Mark says the kingdom of God is like? A man scatters the seed on the ground and then leaves it to the care of the earth. The Greek word that describes the process is “automatic,” that is the earth produces by itself and can be trusted to produce the plant without any anxiety or manure or extraordinary care or even the purchase of “Gardening for Dummies.” So the lesson learned might be that we should no longer worry about our tomatoes or our squash. The earth can be trusted to take care of them for us.
But what about my life? It seems as though I am bound to manage it, to fuss about it, to plan it, and, of course, to worry about it, lest I fail and end up unsatisfied and perceive my existence as unyielding of any good fruit. We live is an age of anxiety—in the time between the planting and the reaping which is a time of great uncertainty. We really want to believe that God will act on our behalf the way God does in the automatic earth, but the skeptical side of our human nature has this burning urge to help God out—just in case. And in our anxiety we spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy seeking to take control of the garden, even forcing the harvest any way we can.
Anxiety can consume us. It is so much a part of our everyday life that it seems automatic. It can make us isolate from others and make us retreat into an unhealthy dark place where nothing good grows. Abandoning anxiety does not mean that we are no longer responsible for our life or concerned about where it is heading but it does mean a conscious effort to give up incessant, relentless worrying about things over which we have little or no control and getting past the illusion that, unless we worry about everything at every waking moment, our lives will disintegrate.
The Good News today is that you and I can scatter our seeds—both in our garden and in the day to day affairs of life—because the growth of the Kingdom of God is in God’s hands, not ours. The anxious part of us would dictate that we just keep those seeds in their envelopes or plant them in tiny pots where we can dig them up everyday to monitor their growth.
Faith allows us to open our hand and scatter them wide and far as the wind blows, trusting them to the automatic earth. Our human action is not the point but rather the mystery of God’s grace. There is, of course, the temptation when it seems like nothing is happening, when God seems not to be present, to take matters into our own hands and force the buds to sprout, instead of tilling the soil over and over and giving God a chance to do God’s work.
Coming full circle, Barbara Brown Taylor wraps it all up better than I can: “There in the dark, where you cannot see and do not know how, the automatic earth turns the death of your seeds into life, pushing up through layers of dirt, through asphalt, through concrete if necessary, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. Then it is your turn. You have watched and waited faithfully, knowing you cannot make the seed grow, knowing who can. It is your turn to harvest the crop, and let your table be heaped with good things, and sit down at it, and eat.”